Belinda Bencic is in top form, finally, working her way back to the Top 10 of women's tennis after injuries sidelined her for much of 2016 and 2017. The Swiss star won a tournament last week in Las Vegas and she’s the No. 1 seed at this week's Oracle Challenger Series at Rice University.
Bencic, who reached No. 7 in the world as an 18-year-old in 2016, has a remarkable record against the sport’s brightest names. She boasts a winning record against former No. 1’s Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber. She’s beaten No. 1’s Garbine Muguruza and both Serena and Venus Williams. In 2015, she won the Rogers Cup in Canada, defeating four Top 10 players, Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Serena and Simona Halep along the way.
Bencic, still only 21, debuted with the Swiss Federation Cup team in 2012, and won the French Open and Wimbledon girls title that year. Two years later, she made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, beating two Top 10 players. Oh, and for the past two years, she’s represented Switzerland in the international Hopman Cup tournament in Australia. Her partner in mixed doubles? Some guy named Federer.
As Houston's leading tennis journalist, I had to ask Bencic the tough questions. We sat down after her practice session Monday, November 12. Usually, I limit my questions to 10, but since tennis is the greatest sport ever... she gets 15.
Ken Hoffman: Can you settle the Great Tennis Debate? Is a tennis ball yellow or green? Houston barbecue artiste Yonny Demeris constantly tells me the ball is green. I think he needs to wear goggles when he's near the restaurant's smoker. I say yellow. So?
Belinda Bencic: It’s yellow. Green? No, it’s bright yellow. (Note: If you look at a can of tennis balls, the label says “optic yellow.”)
KH: How do you explain your success against Top 10 players?
BB: I’m not sure why. Everybody is intimidated the first time they play the top players, of course. I was very young my first times. I was 16 when I played Petra Kvitova. I was 17 when I played Serena the first time. I lost both matches. But the next time I played them, I knew what to expect. So I was able to focus on what I had to do.
I definitely love the big crowd and the atmosphere of big matches. I don’t have a problem with being intimidated. Also, you’re much freer when you play the top players. If you lose, nothing happens. If you win, wow, it’s amazing. So I go on the court with a much easier attitude when I play them.
KH: Tennis has a new rule: now, players have to get their own towels from back of the court. Ball kids are no longer running back and forth with towels, they can concentrate on retrieving balls. I think fans will like the new rule because they don’t have to watch some players dry off after every point. It's kind of ridiculous. How do you feel about the new rule?
BB: There are two sides to the story. Sometimes players go to the towels because they want a break. But there are times when you play in Cincinnati and it’s 89 percent humidity, and you need a towel. I’m sweating a lot in Cincinnati. I won’t mind getting my own towel. But it’s a difficult situation now because there’s another rule that we have only 25 seconds between points.
Between points, you need time to breathe, to take the towel, to take the balls and start the point. We get fined if we take longer than 25 seconds. It has to be clear, after a long rally, the referee can’t say you have 25 seconds. The referee can let you have a little extra time. I think the 25-second rule is okay, but the rule has to have a brain.
KH: I play tennis for fun. You play tennis for work. Is tennis fun for you?
BB: It is fun, but not every day. Sometimes there are days when you don’t want to play. A person like you, when you don’t want to play, you just don’t play. But we have to go to work every day. I definitely appreciate that I do something I like, so I’m having fun in my job.
I think most of the people in the world are not happy with their job, so I’m very happy to be a tennis player. But everybody has their days when they just don’t want to go to work.
KH: Tennis is weird. It’s the only sport I can think of where opponents dress in the same locker room and warm up with each other. You don’t see LeBron James and Stephen Curry doing layup drills together before a game. How do you stop your opponent from eavesdropping on your coach talking with you?
BB: It is strange. Soccer teams don’t see each other before the match. They have their own locker rooms and their own warmup area. In tennis, you’re in the same shower, the same locker room, you may even share the same warmup court. It’s weird, but I’ve been doing it since I was small, so I’m used to it. When I think about how other sports do it, yes, tennis is weird.
As for eavesdropping on your opponents, we try not to talk tactics in front of other players. One physical therapist may work with a lot of players at a tournament. When you walk in the locker room, he may ask, ‘How’s your foot?’ in front of your opponent, so they know you have a foot injury. It’s not ideal, but unfortunately, it’s like that. Before a match, I just block everything out and I don’t talk to my opponent.
KH: Here’s something else that’s weird about tennis. It’s the only sport where opponents are wearing the identical uniform. If you stand back from the TV, and you’re not familiar with the players, it’s difficult to tell them apart.
BB: Everybody has the sponsors. Nike will have a new collection and you have to wear that collection at a tournament. If you’re a top player like Serena or Sharapova, you have your own line and no one else is wearing it. If you’re not at that level, you get what everybody else gets. So many players are wearing the same thing. I’m fortunate because Nike gave me a line that only a few other players are wearing. It’s a line for younger generation players.
KH: You play tournaments around the world. What is your favorite city?
BB: New York! New York has everything, the shopping, just everything. You can go where there’s lot of people, go to the park, yes, the pizza. It’s a very special city, I feel the energy when I’m there. I really want to go to New York City when it’s Christmas.
KH: Do you ever wake up and have no idea what city you’re in?
BB: All the time. I wake up in a new bed and ask myself, ‘Where am I? Oh, I’m in Tyler, Texas or another city for another tournament.' Thank God I’m not a singer, where every night is a different city. With me, it’s just every week is different.
KH: Switzerland is right in the middle of everything in Europe. How many languages do you speak? When you talk to the crowd, is it difficult to be funny in different languages?
BB: I speak English, German, Swiss German, Slovakian and I understand French a little, but not enough for me to speak it. Back home with my friends, I speak Swiss German. With my parents and family, we speak Slovakian. Humor is hard. Sometimes I try to make a joke and it doesn’t go well. Plus you don’t know local expressions and funny words. But I’m getting more comfortable with English.
KH: This is winter for Houston. It’s about 55 degrees and overcast. What’s the craziest weather you’ve played a match in?
BB: In April, in Prague, we played a match and it was zero degrees Celsius (32 F) and snowing. When my opponent was serving and looking up, I could see her breath and the snow flakes coming down.
KH: You’re not a grunter, but a lot of women players are. Do you think grunting gives a player an unfair advantage?
BB: I’m not a big fan of grunting, but I’m not really bothered by it. A little bit is ok. They said a couple of years ago, they were going to stop the juniors from doing that, but they’re not doing that. I don’t like when players are screaming, especially when the ball is already on your side of the court. I don’t get distracted by them screaming because I’m focused on what I’m doing. But it’s pretty annoying when I’m watching a match on TV.
KH: You occasionally throw your racket in anger or disgust, and it doesn’t break. You keep playing with it. I threw my racket one time and I had to go buy another racket. Do pros have a secret way to throw a racket and not break it?
BB: Yes, I do throw my racket sometimes. I calculate the strength of how hard I throw it. I can make it bounce and it’s okay to keep playing. If I’m really angry, I will break it. I’m very emotional on the court, so I do it a lot.
KH: Do you have a driver’s license?
BB: Yes, I have a Swiss driver’s license. I can drive anywhere in the world. But it’s different in the U.S. because you don’t let anybody under 25 rent a car. So I could buy a car here and drive it, but I can’t rent a car.
KH: Did you buy anything stupid extravagant when you won your first big money?
BB: I was only 17 when I won my first tournament, so I couldn’t buy anything too stupid, especially with my ‘supervisor’ around (pointing to her father-coach Ivan). I did buy one thing, a bracelet for my mother. (At which point Ivan interjects: “Yes, but you wear it.”)
KH: Last one, what was it like playing doubles in Australia with the greatest player ever, Roger Federer?
BB: For half a year, after I heard I was going to play with him, I was so nervous. Oh my God, how am I going to play doubles with Federer? I will be so nervous, I won’t be able to hit the ball in the court. Actually, I was more nervous playing my singles match, knowing he was watching me.
When we played doubles, I was only nervous until the match started. Suddenly I was fine, I became myself. He really helped me. He’s a comfortable guy who makes you confident. He's so down to Earth. There was no pressure and I played really well. I think I was more nervous giving my speech after we won.
The Oracle Challenger Series runs through November 18 at Rice University's George R. Brown Tennis Complex. Visit the official site for schedules and more information. Free.